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The Ice Song (Song For The Basilisk, Patricia McKillip)

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Jan. 15th, 2008 | 10:27 pm

Written for Yuletide '07
No sex, no explicit violence.
Caladrius in the hinterlands, learning what it means to be a bard.



He had ceased to speak so long ago that now when he went to talk he could no longer make a sound. They paid it no mind, welcoming him in and feeding him at the hearth and letting him play slow deep wavering songs on the pipes that the old men gave him, until the last of the sun was gone and the night spread broad and white-rimed beyond the window.

It was the same in each place, as it had been once before; they took him and recognised him or didn't recognise him and gave him food and instruments to play and asked nothing of him, no questions that he couldn't answer with his newly-silent tongue, no answers that would have been lies or half-truths if he could have found his words. It didn't matter. He knew where he was going, steadily northwards, up into the hills towards that great blue stretch of water, or beyond it to the place where the ice-bone beast slept, where winter had been born.

He went as the raven, once, black wings broad against the bright sky; but the raven too had no voice.

They saw it in him none the less, and called him that, or words like it, since he had no name to give them. He remembered when a word like that had been all the name he had, and part of him yearned back to the simplicity of those days - but the place where he had borne that name was burned and cold, and the name that he carried now was a great weight upon him, a chain stretching back into the south that he had tried to cast off and could not.

Hollis, he thought, when he thought of such things: Hollis would manage perfectly well without him, would manage better than him, though the idea of Hollis dealing with Luna Pellior gave him pause when he remembered to remember it.

The concern was distant, though, and vague, and the nature of Berylon itself was so very alien to the hinterlands that even thoughts of it found it hard to enter here. He missed the heat, that fierce fiery light of chimeras and griffins, warm stone, dim marble shadows. Here the sky was turning a colder blue, the smell of snow creeping down on the sharpening wind. Once, sleeping blanket-wrapped under a low roof with chickens murmuring sleepily around him in the dark, he dreamed of teaching Damiet to play the picochet, her fair hair and heavy creamy face bent into shadows of its own; most nights his dreams were dim and silent.

Snow came down before he expected it, in the hinterlands, a wet, driving snow that made travel hard whichever shape he wore; and still he went north. He skirted the edge of that wide blue lake, now winter-pale and limned with ice, fishers' villages huddled on the edges or stalking out into it on wooden stilt legs. He ate whatever came to hand, whatever he could barter for, whatever they gave him for his music: hard flat bread for the metal buttons on his sleeves, a song for a cup of raw spirits, even the wolf-shadowed picochet for slabby blocks of salt fish so that he could keep going onwards, onwards, north.

Even if he could have spoken, he shared no language now with the people he met. He played strange instruments in that time, stranger even than on his first visit to the hinterlands, drums and pipes and thin strings with hidden magic and voices of winter, hearth smoke, ice cracking in the stunted trees. He drew out whatever lay within them and passed on, and with one that he played the winter and the strangeness and the frozen silence of the land crept inside him and made him their home until he was little more than a man-shape passing through, ice in his hair and his growing tangle of beard and wildness in his eyes.

He thought, in as much as he thought at all, that he was going toward the fire-bone creature. Hadn't it always ruled his destiny, open or secret? White as winter, red as blood, black as night; its colours were all around him in this land. Take my life, he had told it once in a dream or a memory, had promised that he would be its and play no other song. He could still hear that song, had heard it even in Berylon, under the beating of his blood. Luna had almost banished it for a time, pushed it to the very edges of awareness with her gold and subtlety; he knew that he would hear it until he died. Here, where all the things for which he had played it seemed like dreams of long-ago warmth, it beat in his ears with every step he took, every aching breath, the creak of snow beneath his boots.

Your life is mine.

One foot in front of the other; breath dragged into and forced out of lungs that the cold gripped like a fist; the world a uniform grey-white beneath the rough wind. He met people rarely now, and what instruments they had were all of bone and sinew, with voices raw as the landscape. Sleeping and waking became confused, and all his dreams were of walking and of ice.

He walked, or dreamed he walked, until he came to the great ice that lay like a wall across the world, blue-white and deadly. His feet led him stumbling through fallen chunks of ice like basilisk's teeth, to the crack that opened in the base of the wall like the throat of the beast, and without stopping or thinking or any hesitation he went on into the deep blue darkness. An iridescent spiral shell-coil leading inward, ice lit with shades of blue and green as vivid as the northern lights, and as cold: the fire-bone beast had swallowed him entire, and he could not turn back.

He didn't know how long he walked, how long it had taken him to come there - time had ceased to have meaning long before. He would have expected silence, if he had thought; as it was he walked through the deep groaning of the ice. It wasn't the wild huskiness of the fire-bone pipe, and vibrating in his bones it made them hurt more than even the cold had managed.

Whale-song, he thought, the words swimming up into his mind, and with them the image of the first bard carried down into the depths by the ghost of the whale, still singing.

The blue deepened, darkened like an evening sky. When the passage became too low for him to walk he dropped his pack unheeding and went on hands and knees, sometimes crawling on his belly, sometimes plunging elbow-deep into unexpected water: on, and on.

And then abruptly he was in a dark echoing place, and there was no way forward and no way back; his hands, reaching out in sudden panic, found nothing but smooth cold walls. Even the whale-voice of the ice was gone, and all around him he felt the terrible malevolent mocking of the fire-bone beast that had drawn him here and swallowed him. Silenced at last, finally and completely: the only sound left the fire-bone song beating in his heart.

And then you will live where I live. Your bones will be ice, your blood will be fire. Every song you play will become the song you play out of me.

No, he said, in the darkness beneath the ice and winter, in the beast's gut. No. There is another song.

He knew there was power in him, and with it he called music out of memory; instruments took shape beneath his hands, picochet and lavandre, the harp that he had waited so long to master, the pipes and drums and stranger things of the hinterlands, each sound striving against the swallowing silence of the dark.

He played songs of fire and grace, songs of such terrible sweetness that it hurt his heart to play them, music of shadow and moss and bone and the first green haze of spring. He would have said he played with everything he had in him, every trick and technique and secret skill, but that it wasn't enough; it was never enough. His fingertips stung and bled from plucking strings, his lips chapped and cracked against mouthpieces and reeds, his hands ached so that he could scarcely make his fingers move, and still it was not enough. Silence swallowed them, and darkness, and the beast mocked.

When his hands would no longer work he left art behind and beat sound from what would give it with his wrists and elbows, thick tar-sticky black sounds and empty hollow desperate ones, driven, unable to stop. His hands had left red traces on the skins of drums, the bone whiteness of flutes; he was soaked in sweat and the smell of his own flesh, his nose ran in the frozen air: all dignity gone from him, a sticky straining human instrument and nothing more.

And it was not enough. He had given all that he had, and still silence and obliteration and the basilisk's frozen gaze were all that were left for him.

No, he said, in silence. No, no, no. It welled up in him, up through the soles of his feet, rising from far beneath the ice in the dark molten heart of the world: a fierce and furious denial, a clutching at life. He felt himself shaking with it, broken as he was, felt it groaning in his bones as the whale-voice of the ice had groaned, surging upwards like a dark jet so that his mouth filled with the taste of blood and redness burst behind his eyes, and he gave himself up to it.

It came retching out of his mouth, hardly a sound at all, wrenched from a voice crippled by unuse; a sound like a desert wind, furious and burning, a sound full of thorns and rust and broken things, and yet a living sound that pierced the darkness, broke the stillness into a thousand dazzling pieces. There was no beauty in it: it was beyond beauty.

He heard the cry of the beast in it, the terrible fire-bone song, and the harsh voice of the picochet drawing green up from the earth, the drum that trapped the dead, the strange primal musics of the frozen land, the instruments that responded to the workings of the heart. He put everything that he had ever been into it - the burned child, the half-bard Rook, Master Caladrius in Berylon, Griffin Tormalyne, the voiceless stranger lost in the snow.... He emptied himself out into the cry, until the ice took up the sound and the hidden earth beneath it groaned and shook and splintered.

Driven to the ground by the force of his own cry he threw up his bloodied hands to protect his face, but still the sound came out of him, welling ceaselessly up and turning truer, purer and more terrible, driving back the blotting silence and bringing light shattering down -

Daylight: sun beating down on hard ground, a rocky slope, green hills floating against blue; an old woman's face turning to him in the shade of a scrubby tree. All this he saw as he lowered his hands, his voice going abruptly dry and cutting off the sound. He lay half-curled on wet moss, shaken and bloodied; the sound by his ear was a little stream gurgling to itself. The old woman looked at him out of her shallow-water eyes, copper bowl between her hands, and smiled her toothless smile.

"I -" he began, his voice cracking like the raven's from lack of use and the force of that terrible cry, but she shook her head. She poured the water from her bowl back into the flow of the stream, and he felt the sun's warmth begin to creep into his body, driving out the cold.

"You should be careful," she said, her voice thin and clear, "how you use your voice now, bard." She cocked her head, birdlike. "You have always played the truth. Now I think you will find yourself speaking it as well. Whether you like it or no."

He opened his mouth to question or to deny. No sound came. She laughed at him a little, equally soundless.

"Could you tell a lie with your picochet?" she asked him.

"Y-" he started confidently; the word died on his lips.

She looked at him without speaking, smiling.

"You have played life," she said, after a moment, "with that. And you have played death, there in the south. I heard it even here. But you have never played a lie. And now that it has shaped so deep a truth as it has just done, how can you make your voice shape a lie?"

He did not doubt her; more, he was beginning to suspect who she might be. "No untruth, ever?" He thought of Berylon and its intrigues, the chimera and the phoenix, Luna Pellior and her lizard-green eyes - and Tormalyne Palace with its empty chair, waiting for him. "That may be - it may make life difficult."

Another silent laugh. "You think about truth, and about its speaking. How the one becomes the other, at times." She scooped up water in the bowl, watched it ripple and fragment the light, and her amusement deepened at what she saw reflected there.

"Look," she said, pointing overhead. He followed the line of her knotty finger, saw the raven's flight dark against the bright summer blue, its arc and swooping descent. He glanced back down, but she was gone - and then the sea-scent hit him, familiar as childhood, out of a summer on Luny.

He watched, still caught between worlds and places, as the raven dipped down onto the tower top. Most of the windows were still black charred holes in the familiar face of the building, but in that one place there was a light, and his breath caught in his throat as he recognised whose window it was.

The stairs were steeper than he remembered them, and his chest ached as he climbed, still burning from the cry that broke the world. But they were clean, swept free of dust: someone came this way, and regularly.

He knocked on Hollis' door almost diffidently, as if he might not be welcome.

The man who opened it was older than he had expected - there was grey in the tangled black hair, crows' feet around the mussel shell eyes - but recognisably Hollis. His son crossed his arms on his chest, plainly fighting not to let his very great emotion show in his face.

"I've been waiting," Hollis said, and his voice was as cracked as his father's had been.

"Who told you?" he asked, and knew the answer before Hollis spoke; who else could it possibly have been?

"Luna Pellior." Hollis stood aside, let him in. The room was bare, the furniture sparse; smudges of black still marked the ceiling, irradicable as memory. Three pallets with rough blankets, and children deep asleep on two of them, a boy and a girl.

"The latest come," Hollis said, some kind of smothered exasperation showing in his voice. "They will keep coming."

"And you teach them." He could not keep his eyes from his son's changed, deeply familiar face. "Who else?"

"Rener came back first; then Yvette. More, recently, as word spreads. You - " Hollis' voice broke. "Seven years, father. Seven years."

"Seven?" he said, appalled, and in saying it knew that it had to be true. Berylon - Luna - Tormalyne Palace - Luna again - "Seven years." He noticed, with vague interest, that his hands were shaking. He turned them over; the palms were still bloody from pounding sound into black silence. An echo of the great cry still shivered in his bones.

For the first time, he realised that the sound of the fire-bone pipe had left him at last.

"I have - I have been Tormalyne House," Hollis said, with a certain angry pride. "For seven years. Waiting for you. It - I have managed. Wherever - wherever you've been. You can come home. It will be all right."

Home? he thought, standing in the well-scrubbed room in the ruins of Luny, thinking of sun-scorched streets and lizard-green eyes. Think about truth, she had said, the old woman, and about its speaking. How one becomes the other.

"Yes," he said to Hollis, making it true. "Yes, it will be all right."

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